Writing the Apocalypse, or You Can’t Have Darkness without Heart


Here I am, just over a week after finishing my fifth novel, thinking about what I learned from the process. #5 was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. If it is ever published I doubt anyone will be able to tell, but for me it marks the point where I began to walk upright as a writer. On the other side of this beast I look forward, and look back, and find that I’m somewhat lost. I want to go back to Max Chrome, and his world, his friends, and his adventures, but I also want to continue the push. This has happened to me before in other aspects of my life; when my guitar playing took off I pressed harder instead of enjoying things, when I began getting in shape there came a day when I saw my body had changed shape and I began to live in the gym, and the point where hiking 7 miles had become an average day so I began to find longer trails. The difference is today I have the benefit of those experiences to guide me through this new phase. I’m taking a break to cool my writing jets, and take stock.

Novel #5 began a few years ago with a 100-word short story, and it had a solid concept which yielded great things. The opening chapter revealed itself to me one afternoon, powerful enough to drive the first quarter of the story, and I wrote a test version of it, which was lost when my first laptop died. I got two things out of that experiment: A powerful introduction to the villains, and my hero. He would evolve in the three years between the test chapter, and when I finally turned him loose into my fictional California city. It turned out that he would save my story a couple of time when I thought all was lost. He forced me to take the story from a series of set-pieces strung together by narrative, and made me focus on characters.

His name is Wes, and in that first test-drive he was a Sheriff’s deputy in the middle of an ugly divorce. He is making a phone call outside of a waterfront bar when the novel’s antagonists strike. Wes didn’t want to be a cop. His reasoning (and yes kids, we had long internal conversations about his story) was why make him a guy with a gun if the gun would be useless to the plot? He complained that all of my novels to this point involved guys with guns, and he didn’t want to be the next one, thank you very much. Wes became a bar-tender with a hell of a back story. Once Wes took shape the rest of the characters just spilled into his word; his daughter Katy, his girlfriend Talia, his ex-wife Angela, the regulars at the bar: Leroy, Herman, Skipper, and a guy named Duckfoot. I had so many characters I had to keep a list (which is a great idea that I’m sure good writers already do), and I was forced to name many of the supporting cast after Oakland Raiders. Wes is laid back with a wisdom earned by the many beating life has inflicted on him.

I began #5 in August, 2013 while I was finishing up #4, which was a Max Chrome adventure that has the unique status of being a novel I have no intention of trying to publish. #4 was written based on comments from trusted friends who wanted to know more about him, who he was, and his motivations, and so I set a story in his home town with old friends, and his ex-wife. For an action adventure there is a lot of talking, but it was worth it. In November I took Max out for a spin with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and crushed a solid story in 17 days thanks to that exercise. #4 opened up Novel #5 thanks to my taking my action hero, and making him have long discussions. This made me take different tacks to scenes where I had to think about who was in them instead of what was going to happen next. The characters drove the story with the action being secondary, and I think that’s probably how it should be.

The first grownup adventure story I read was Peter Benchley’s “Jaws”. I was 9, and though 90% of the character plot was way over my head I still became attached to Chief Brody, and he kept me involved in the story through the boring affair stuff with Hooper and his wife. I wanted to see him survive, and right up to that last paragraph with the shark facing him down I was holding my breath. When the movie came out in 1975 I was disappointed because all Spielberg saw was the shark, and the shark drove the story. The problem was that the shark wasn’t portrayed as a character; in fact it had more personality in the early scenes where you didn’t see it. The next action novel I read was the long-lost “Firespill”, by Ian Slater. The plot involved two oil tankers colliding in the Gulf of Alaska, one carrying high-octane fuel, and if you haven’t guessed it already, the spill erupts into flame. I think I bought it because it had a submarine on the cover. All I remember from this story is that the Vice President is on a yacht caught in the middle of the conflagration. But I do remember reading it, and it had sat on my bookshelf since 1977. The story focused on characters in the middle of an impossible situation. The narrative it tight, and could enjoy a revival as it is still a believable plot.

I thought destroying the world would be easy, but I soon discovered it is a huge chore. Characters don’t always do what you think they’re going to do, and sometimes they take the story in another direction. I learned not to fight it. Good characters will never let you down. By the time I was three quarters into the story over half of the set-piece scenes of destruction had been discarded, and at least one character I had planned to kill in an horrible way was still around while another one I had hoped would be the Han Solo to Wes’ Luke Skywalker was dead. My vision of a story, which was to be like “The Stand”, had wandered off into its own world, with its own rules, and sensibilities. Worse for me was when I finally saw how it would end I became depressed. My man Wes might not make it to the end of the story. Killing him was going to suck. I started writing Novel #6 to cheer myself up, but Wes would tap me on the shoulder and get me back into #4.

“Trust me,” Wes would say. “Respect me, if I have to die then I have to die. Just remember who I am and let me do my thing.” #6 was shelved, and around this time Craig Johnson of the Longmire novels rolled into Monterey. Craig spoke to the Creative Writing Class at Monterey Peninsula College, and later did a big talk/reading shindig at school’s theater. Craig offered tips on writing ranging from character, to dialog, to structure, and he knocked the cobwebs loose. I wrote ten short stories to apply those things to my writing, and get them wired into my brain. Some of those stories can be found here, but a couple of them are just for me.

When I got back to #4 I found Wes waiting to drive to the finish line. I began researching the key elements of the final chapters (yep, a submarine), and while watching a YouTube video of a guided tour of a Trident submarine I saw exactly what I needed to at least give Wes a shot at making it. I knew I didn’t need to add too much more color in the way of human suffering, I had plenty, and by the time I burned San Francisco to the ground you (the reader) see it from a distance on the other side of the bay. You already know what’s going on by now, and the story isn’t about San Francisco, it’s about Wes being in deep shit.

Wes brings you into the story, keeps you invested in the story, and (hopefully) keeps you turning the pages. Destruction for destruction’s sake isn’t interesting beyond a few paragraphs. Tornados rampaged through the mid-west while I was writing the last chapters, and while the footage on the Weather Channel was gripping, all I was worried about was the people in their path. In the aftermath the news showed splintered houses, naked trees, and crumpled vehicles, but it never hits home until they talk to the survivors. The stories are all the same, some people took shelter as their home blew apart around them, and others just got lucky being in the right place when some poor person only a few yards away died. And after the tears, and the shock, those people began to clean up the mess, bury their dead, and began to rebuild. This was all applied to Novel #4, and steered me in a realistic direction.

With #4 done you’d think things should be easier for me, and in some ways they are. I started a test chapter for #7, and instantly knew what I needed to do to pull it off. This is a new thing for me. The problem is I need new characters, and I need to find my outrage that will drive the plot. I don’t have that right now. For the time being I’m going to fizz around and write some shorts, do character sketches, and read the news. Novel #6 will pick up over the next few weeks, but I need to ease back into that one. I think that as a writer I have transitioned from a bicycle to a car, and now I want a better car. What I need to remember is the most fun I’ve had in my life came in old, beat up cars, and not a Ferrari. I need to just roll up my sleeves and write, but it should be, no – must be fun.